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Reggae In The U.K.: A Steady Force

<strong>Music For 'Disenfranchised Working-Class Youth':</strong> The British reggae band Steel Pulse formed in Birmingham in 1975. Mykaell Riley is third from the left.
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Music For 'Disenfranchised Working-Class Youth': The British reggae band Steel Pulse formed in Birmingham in 1975. Mykaell Riley is third from the left.

You could hear it on mainstream radio in 1978, courtesy of The Police, and if you're in Britain, you can hear it on the airwaves today, in the music of Birmingham-born MC Lady Leshurr: reggae's influence on British music.

"As long as there's been reggae, there's been reggae in the U.K., and that influence has played a massive role," says producer and DJ Ras Kwame, who has worked on BBC Radio for more than a decade.

Lately called "bass culture," the wide range of music influenced by reggae in the U.K. is as prominent as the rock that was inspired by R&B and blues half a century ago, says Mykaell Riley, the lead singer of the reggae band Steel Pulse, which formed in Birmingham in 1975.

"We look at the impact of it; we look at how it's changed production; we look at the story of the remix culture, rave culture and the relationship to sound systems; we look at current youth and what they use as a key reference when making popular music in the U.K., and we'll see that the resonance of the black community in the U.K. has a major contribution that has never been fully recognized," Riley says.

The contribution began in the 1950s, when Jamaican immigration to the U.K. spiked. By the early '60s, British sound systems flourished and British ska music by artists like Millie Small topped the Billboard charts.

Where in America, West Indian immigrants could be absorbed into existing African-American communities, in Britain, where there was no real black community to speak of, Caribbean people found themselves isolated. Riley says that reggae became a potent way of dealing with that alienation.

"Disenfranchised working-class youth identified through this music," Riley says, "which was rebellious, it was anti-state, anti-government, it was very politically charged and very militant, so the black youth were very motivated and socially aware at the time. And all of this came through reggae. It was not present in the schools, on television, in the books, in radio."

In the 1970s, reggae exploded in the U.K. Bob Marley lived in London. Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones recorded reggae songs, and a soulful British genre known as Lover's Rock was born. But when U.K. reggae bands like Steel Pulse and Aswad hit the scene, they struggled to be accepted by black audiences who deemed them less authentic than Jamaican-born acts. Instead, these new bands found an unlikely fan base: punks.

"We didn't care what they looked like as long as they identified with the music," Riley says. "At the time it meant that we had a chance to grow. We had support."

But it was a strange kind of support. "We'd be on the way to our gig and we'd see members of our core audience — these punks — walking down the road with a bunch of skinheads, fascists, and we'd see them later and they'd say, 'Don't acknowledge us,'" Riley says. "Basically, what they were saying was, 'We like the music, but when we're on the street, we're on the street.' So there was a level of duality within our audience."

But it was punks who ended up taking reggae into the mainstream. The Clash famously recorded a cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" for their debut album. By the 1980s, U.K. reggae had a white face. Labels signed bands like The Police, Culture Club and Madness over black British bands. And just as in America, where R&B turned to rock 'n' roll as its performers grew whiter, these "blue-eyed" reggae bands in the U.K. were suddenly reclassified.

"One of the things that happens in the U.K. with underground music is that [at] the point it crosses over and enters the charts, there is a rebranding," Riley says. "And in that rebranding, there is generally a disconnect with the source or the origins. With regard to reggae we find that the instant it enters the charts it's suddenly called 'pop.'"

During the 1990s, reggae influenced a younger generation of British artists coming out of the rave scene. Jungle music was essentially rave music with Jamaican dancehall-style vocals, and the musical hybrids influenced by Jamaican-style bass just kept coming: U.K. garage, drum-and-bass, dubstep and the new mashup dubbed "electro-bashy."

Producer Res Kwame says the U.K. music scene produces innovative hybrids because it's less confined by genre than in the U.S.: "Our producers are just doing it in our neighborhood and we have the means of getting it out: pirate stations. Because we're coming from a culture where radio in the main has not been receptive to black music, we've had to find our own way and means of doing things. And that's led to a creativity at the street level."

That creativity is bass culture in a nutshell: new music out of old-school roots.

And now for an exercise in cultural footnoting: tracing the line from a current tune to its musical precedent. When it comes to the U.K., most such lines lead unswervingly to one humble island: Jamaica, which has been deeply impacting the British music scene since the first major wave of Jamaican immigration to England in the 1950s. Below, a family tree of sorts — a range of contemporary U.K. acts and the original Jamaican acts from which they descend:

Lady Leshurr, "Lego" & Lady Saw, "Sycamore Tree"
The Birmingham-born MC got her start as a teenager climbing the ranks of the U.K. garage scene. She sometimes sounds like a dead ringer for Nicki Minaj, which might not be coincidence, since both are of Caribbean background — Minaj is Trinidadian and Leshurr's parents from St. Kitts — and both have a vocal style that veers toward dancehall-style chat. Leshurr would surely pay her respects to the first lady of dancehall, Lady Saw, who has been scandalizing audiences with her outré performances and brash lyrical style for more than a decade.

Rasites, "Hit Fit" & Bob Marley and The Wailers, "Concrete Jungle"
Rasites lead singer and bassist Jahmel Ellison describes his band as "traditional roots reggae from the U.K.," a la Aswad and Steel Pulse. But he admits the influence of other genres on his band's style, much in the way Bob Marley's "Exodus" album, recorded in London, had a rock feel. The band has toured with Black Uhuru, performed at eminent Jamaican stage shows and released two albums, all the while paying homage to the classic Jamaican roots reggae acts, like The Wailers, who inspire them.

Natty, "Change" & Lee "Scratch" Perry, "I Am a Madman"
London-born Natty is the son of a mother from southern Africa and an Italian-English father. But the 27-year-old, who's toured with Lee Perry and Ziggy Marley, bucks cultural boundaries, calling his genre "roots music — because it's coming from the root: roots of reggae, roots of blues, African music." The rock and dub sounds in his tunes herald back to Perry, the original dub pioneer and one of Natty's inspirational icons.

Gappy Ranks, "Heaven in Her Eyes" & Busy Signal, "Comfort Zone"
U.K.-born Ranks, half Jamaican and half Dominican, has collaborated with everyone from Beenie Man and Gyptian to rapper Twista. He can sing and chat in equal measure — much like Jamaican artist Busy Signal, best known for dancehall standards but lately singing a new tune: Busy will be releasing his first all-reggae album next month.

DJ Kenny Ken, "Murda Ya" & Shabba Ranks, "Ting-A-Ling"
Jungle music was born in the early '90s when British DJs began lacing dancehall-style vocals over rave tracks. Drum-and-bass toned down the dancehall influence and delivered a more minimalist, industrial sound. DJ Kenny Ken has been lighting up clubs in the U.K. and beyond with both genres since 1989. Listen to one of his jungle remixes alongside dancehall's original crossover star, Shabba Ranks, and the influence is loud and clear.

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Baz Dreisinger
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